Brand name key to smartphone sustainability

Smartphones can quickly become obsolete, leading to criticism of their environmental impact. However, increased repairability is less important than the psychology of the brand name when it comes to device sustainability, says a new study.

Smartphone manufacturers have come under criticism in recent years for producing devices that quickly stop working and cannot be repaired in a so-called “planned obsolescence” that is costly for both consumers and the environment.

Yet with estimates suggesting the average use of the average phone is less than two years and many consumers calling for devices with longer lifespans, there is a more important factor at play in determining a smartphone’s sustainability: the brand name.

According to an analysis led by Yale of roughly 500,000 listings of secondhand Apple and Samsung phones sold on eBay, researchers found that iPhones on average have an additional year of use.

After evaluating depreciation rates based on variables including repairability, battery size, data capacity and screen size, they found that Samsung smartphones reached the end of their economic life after just over 54 months, while Apple phones reached it after about 67.

“In most cases phones are replaced when they are still working fine, so improving repairability won’t necessarily help much,” explained Yale doctoral student Tamar Makov in a statement. “Some phones last longer, and it’s not just because they’re repairable or more functionally durable. It’s also the psychological aspects that make them more durable.”

With penetration rates of almost 90 per cent in developed countries, mobile phones, which contain as many as 50 different elements and various toxic materials, present a critical challenge in terms of environmental sustainability, according to the statement.

In recent years, a growing secondhand market for used smartphones has extended the average lifespan of these devices. But just how much longer, the researchers say, depends on the name on the phone.

Makov concluded: “It’s not that technical specifications don’t matter. But no matter what combination of specs were included in our analysis, brand name had a substantial impact.”

Photo credit: Quattro Vageena/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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